As executive director of the Statewide Poverty Action Network, I work with many people whose lives could be changed by a small cash boost. When people in our listening sessions talk about what they would do with a few hundred dollars, I am always struck by how everyday the needs are. Some people just need to fix a car to get to work. Some are a few dollars behind on rent or a utility bill. Others have a family member who has a debt that needs to be repaid.
The constant struggle to provide for basic needs shows just how big the cracks in our structures are. People may not know the ins and outs of our state policies or that they pay six times more of their income in taxes as the richest Washingtonians — but it is clear to them that the system is not treating them well. Costs are too high, cash is tight and the services that are supposed to support our communities are complicated, underfunded and don’t always leave people feeling supported or respected.
The pandemic has only highlighted how our structures are not designed in our favor. Washington’s regressive tax code makes sure the people who earn the least end up paying much more of their income in taxes, while the people with the most money in our state only get richer.
This year, our lawmakers passed several bills that help address these inequalities, including a historic victory for the many people who need a little bit of cash. After 13 years unfunded, our legislature fully funded the Working Families Tax Credit by an almost unanimous vote. Starting in 2023, this credit will put $300 to $1,200 back in the pockets of people with low and moderate incomes, including undocumented immigrants and an outsize number of our BIPOC neighbors.
Our lawmakers also passed a tax on large profits from capital gains, which finally asks the richest people in Washington to pay their share to invest in childcare, education and other community needs.
After years of having the most regressive tax code in the country, these historic wins prove that we can do things differently in Washington. When we actually listen to people’s needs, we can co-create an economy that works for all people.
The people have been asking for these changes for years. The photo on my wall from the original passage of the Working Families Tax Credit is now 13 years old, and we have spent every one of those years asking our lawmakers to fund it. Working people are tired of programs that force us to jump through hoops to get assistance — complicated processes that are steeped in racial biases and a distrust in low-income people’s ability to make decisions about money.
By contrast, the direct cash assistance provided by the Working Families Tax Credit sends a message of trust that working people know what is best for their families. People who receive the credit will be able to access cash with dignity, without being asked to “prove” how difficult their lives are or relive their traumas.
A few hundred dollars can return a sense of stability as our state recovers from the pandemic. It will mean thousands of Washington families will not have to be scared about where their next meal is coming from or how they are going to survive. It means our state is inching closer to a tax system that prioritizes justice instead of favoring the ultra-rich.
These are big wins, but the fight is not over yet. The system is still heavily stacked against people with low incomes: The cash assistance levels remain small in comparison to the need, and the people who benefit from our upside-down tax code are working hard to keep it that way. They also are resisting the policies that will ask the people who can afford it to pay their share. The wealthy few who would pay the new capital gains tax have already challenged it in the courts, and it isn’t even signed into law yet.
Still, this year’s landmark successes are a testament to what is possible when our leaders listen. We know that when you truly listen to people, it is not difficult to come up with the right thing to do. Our lawmakers did it this year, and we hope that they will continue to do so as we call for more progress toward economic justice in the years ahead.
Marcy Bowers is the executive director of the Statewide Poverty Action Network, which advocates for equitable policy solutions for low-income people in Washington.
Read more of the May 5-11, 2021 issue.